What Not to Say to Someone Who Has Cancer

Often the best information comes from people who have personal experience.  A friend shared the following First Person (a daily personal piece submitted by readers) article that appeared in the April 20, 2018 edition of The Globe and Mail.  I think that the author, Alana Somerville’s wisdom speaks for itself.

I should have known. But at that particular moment, I had no idea what to say. So I asked my friend, a young mother with terminal liver cancer, “How can I help? Is there anything you need?”

“A new, healthy body would be fantastic,” she answered.

I felt like an idiot. Of course that was what she wanted. But I couldn’t give it to her, so why on earth had I asked that?

Often, when we know someone who’s been diagnosed with cancer, we don’t have any idea what to say, or we say or do the wrong things. I should have known better.

When I was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 33, I had a hard time dealing with my diagnosis. It took some time, but eventually I figured out that I had to move forward and think positively. However, it was really difficult to keep up my spirits when some of the people around me said and did things that I still can’t quite believe.

There were the people who started their sentences with “At least …”

“At least it’s September so when your hair falls out you’ll be able to wear a hat throughout the winter.”

“At least you have two kids now because who knows what chemotherapy will do to your eggs.”

“At least you caught it early because my friend didn’t, and now she’s on her death bed.”

And then there were also the people who said, “If I were you …”

When that happened, I couldn’t help but think, “Well, you’re not me, so stop right there.” Don’t try to sugar-coat this, and don’t try to find the silver lining. Please, just let me know that you can feel my pain.

My Dad was someone who didn’t know how to handle my diagnosis. When he showed up at my door upset and crying, it only made me think, “Maybe this is all worse than I realize?” Sure, if he hadn’t been upset, that would have been worse, but it also meant that my job shifted from caring for myself to consoling him. At a time when he should have been my rock, I was forced to be his.

When you’re dealing with this kind of internal struggle – to stay positive while it feels like your world is falling apart – you’d be amazed at how eye contact and non-verbal gestures can affect you. You already feel self-conscious, and the stares from complete strangers don’t help. When I was bald from chemotherapy – and I mean no hair, no eyebrows, no eyelashes – people gave me sympathetic looks when I went to the grocery store. I don’t need your sad eyes, I thought, because I am not going to die.

Even offers of help can be interpreted the wrong way. It may seem weird, but when you’re sick, having someone offer to help carry your groceries can make you feel weak. Try to think about things from the sick person’s viewpoint before you offer. Do you know them well? Do you know what they want? I had people who weren’t even my friends offer to buy my children Christmas presents, which I found so odd. I couldn’t help but think, “Hey! I’m still here and they’re my kids! Why would you want to take that away from me?”

What did help? Some of my friends organized a dinner club and made meals that they would drop off at my house every other day. They wouldn’t stay to visit, unless I wanted them to. They put the dinners in disposable containers, which meant I didn’t have the added burden of having to wash and return their containers. I always connected with my friends to thank them, but they were respectful of the fact that I wasn’t always up for conversations.

That my friends didn’t have any expectations was so freeing for me. They simply gave. That felt so precious at a time when I simply didn’t have it in me to give in return. It was the gift of understanding and I still can’t believe how precious that was.

Other friends who felt too uncomfortable with the situation or with seeing me sick simply dropped off gifts at my door, things such as sweaters, books and bathrobes. To me, these incredibly kind gestures meant that although they didn’t really want to talk about things, I knew they were thinking of me.

What also helped immensely were words of encouragement, rather than questions. Comments such as, “You got this,” “You are the strongest person I know,” “The world needs you,” as opposed to just saying, “I’m sure it will be fine.” When I heard that last one, I couldn’t help but think, “How do you know?” whereas the former statements weren’t anything I could argue with. I also appreciated that these weren’t open-ended questions, asking me what they could do to help. The last thing I could do was to think of ways for people to help me.

This whole experience with cancer, and writing my memoir Holding on to Normal, has been an incredible learning journey. I am still learning. I still question what to say when a friend or loved one has been diagnosed with cancer. When in doubt, I still run things by friends and comrades who are breast-cancer survivors.

When someone you love has been diagnosed with cancer, remember that words of hope are better than no words at all. Don’t be a stranger and don’t feel awkward. Try to remember that this isn’t about you. Just treat them normally, the way you always have and like you always will. That in itself will give people hope, which is the biggest gift you can give.

Alana Somerville lives in Fort Erie, Ont.

 

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